The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2018
34 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL battling the disease. We wanted to show them what Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent, had done to keep the disease from becoming a catastrophe of unthinkable propor- tions—not just for Africa, but for the world, which relies heavily on Nigeria’s oil exports and global maritime and aviation sys- tems. We invited Nigeria’s most experienced epidemiologists to come to a gathering in Accra of regional officials, who were com- ing from as far away asThe Gambia, to share lessons learned about Ebola. They would be joined by both CDC’s team and by one of our top experts fromUSAID headquarters. Stars Align for Straight Talk Sometimes in life, the stars align: the timing was perfect for a serious, straight-talking briefing with key Ghanaian presidential and Cabinet players. Our USAID health director, an FSO who had diligently led her team on the Ebola issue, worked her magic with the deputy minister of health to support such a briefing, while Ambassador Cretz reached out to the president’s chief of staff to convene it. On Oct. 9, 2014, the combined U.S. embassy team (Ambas- sador Cretz, USAID, CDC and the Defense Department’s defense cooperation officer) and the Nigerian epidemiological team entered the Cabinet Secretariat of the Ghanaian president. Presi- dent Mahama’s chief of staff presided, joined by the minister of health, the minister of the interior, the minister of commu- nications and Ghana’s minister of defense. First, Ambassador Cretz laid out America’s interest in helping Ghana, and then the Ghanaian officials shared their progress in preparedness. The officers from CDC, USAID and DOD gave their observations and recommendations, offering to continue to assist Ghana and to further marshal the country’s official donors group. Then it was the Nigerians’ turn. We held our breath as Dr. Akin Oyemakinde, chief consultant epidemiologist to Nigeria's Federal Ministry of Health, proceeded quietly but with deep conviction to share his country’s experience fighting the re- emergence of yet another insidious disease—polio—just one year earlier, followed by the frighteningly lethal Ebola virus that had arrived in Nigeria just 80 days before this meeting. He humbly and gravely laid out his assessment of the most decisive actions taken in Nigeria, those that made all the difference in containing both diseases’ spread—especially that of Ebola in densely populated Lagos and Port Harcourt. “The government must be seen to be in control of the situ- ation at all times, with political commitment across the board backed by funding,” Oyemakinde emphasized, to make things happen quickly. He concluded by noting that it “engenders citi- zens’ confidence that the government is out to protect their lives and removes suspicion and creates compliance with directives. A state of chaos or fear must not exist.” Ghana’s press later picked up these thoughts. The government officials thanked us soberly, and our discussion adjourned. Our Impact The Ghanaians’ discussion, however, did not end there. A normally scheduled full Cabinet meeting was starting immedi- ately after our meeting ended. The Ghanaian officials with whom we had talked were so seized with the briefing and the gravitas of the Nigerian experience that President Mahama agreed to change the agenda so that his officials could brief attendees about what had just transpired. The next morning we learned in the Ghanaian press the extent of the impact we’d had. President Mahama and his Cabinet had agreed to establish an Inter-Ministerial Task Force on Ebola to streamline the chain of command and control. They also appointed the highly revered deputy minister of health as incident commander for Ebola. In addition, they activated a life insurance package for health workers to motivate them to stay on the job battling the disease in case of an outbreak, know- ing that their families would be taken care of if they died due to their service. All of these critically important decisions had been pending for months. Finally, we knew that Ghana was as prepared as it could pos- sibly be. And we could all sleep a bit easier that night. Persever- ance, political astuteness and creative diplomacy in reaching out to the Nigerians; our embassy’s timely access to and credibility with the top of Ghana’s government; and successful U.S. govern- ment interagency teamwork with CDC’s outstanding experts made a real difference for Ghana—and, ultimately, for our own country as well. n We invited Nigeria’s most experienced epidemiologists to come to a gathering in Accra of regional officials, who were coming from as far away as The Gambia, to share lessons learned about Ebola.